Building a better world by establishing a Truth Commission: Incomplete healing in El Salvador

Stener Ekern (2018)

This CMI working paper (2018:7) was written by Stener Ekern for the research project entitled “Beyond Words: Implementing Latin American Truth Commission Recommendations”. The research project is based at the Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway, is funded by the Research Council of Norway (2015-2017) and headed by Elin Skaar.

On 17 October 1992, as a consultant to the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, I visited the village of Corinto to collect stories of ‘grave cases of violence’. Situated in the remote and poor province of Morazán, Corinto is as far as it gets from the central areas of this Central American republic. But the war—i.e., El Salvador’s civil war between 1980 and 1990—had taken its toll also up here in the peasant-dominated rocky uplands.

I remember the trip well, in a UN-provided jeep, two consultants and a driver, on ever poorer roads through lush, green scenery that became progressively drier as the road climbed. Halfway up the hills, we made a stop at a place known as ‘Burnt Car’ (Carro Quemado), which was where a battle between the army and the guerrillas had taken place ten years earlier. After the battle, the road remained closed for several days to clear it of heaps of blackened and twisted metal. The episode had left memories strong enough to rename a stretch of the road. Burnt Car spoke about much suffering but also, for visiting Europeans, it told a story about a war that looked like a real war, with organised groups fighting for territorial positions.

In Corinto, we were received by a local lawyer. The trip had been arranged after he had visited our regional truth commission office, a week earlier, in the town of San Miguel down in the lowlands. The lawyer had given us his testimony regarding four extrajudicial killings and added that the violent events he reported were of general knowledge in Corinto. There were also many other similar stories so if we could come and collect them he would be happy to serve. Given that few people came to see us at the regional truth commission office, we decided to go to Corinto the following week.

During that day in Corinto, the two of us received twelve testimonies. We followed our instructions and duly noted down the names of the victims, the relevant category of violence (in this case torture and extrajudicial killing), the names of the perpetrators (if known) and their institutional affiliation, if any. Thus, a typical testimony reads:

“On 15 October 1980, two men from the Civil Defence (Defensa Civil) of Corinto captured and assassinated, in this same village, the gentlemen NV and ES. NV was 45 years old, originally from the hamlet of Corralito, in the municipality of Corinto, where he lived and worked until May 1980, as a farmer and a day labourer. He was married and had nine children. In May he and his family were forced to flee because of fear of the army. They found refuge in Corinto, in the house of a son-in-law of his wife, called ES. NV was an active member of the Catholic Church. … On the day of the crime, the Civil Defence, the entire patrol of some 25 men, stopped outside the house at around six pm. Several patrollers went inside and brought with them NV and ES before the eyes of the family members who were present, and without saying anything. They brought the captives to the headquarters of the Corinto Civil Defence. On that very night the two were shot. On the following morning the children of the captives found the bodies of their fathers along the road to [the neighbouring village of] Sociedad.”[1]

From this as well as the other testimonies we were able to reconstruct the history of a particularly brutal Civil Defence official and reign of terror in Corinto during his tenure in the early 1980s, when the Salvadoran civil war was at its most intense. Before we left the town after an intense day in the field, we were also shown the now deserted house that had served as the headquarters of the Civil Defence and as torture chamber and execution site. There were still traces of blood on the walls. The local lawyer was able to paint a broader picture of the fighting between guerrillas who tried to recruit fighters and gain territorial control over this area in North Eastern Morazán, on the one hand, and on the other an army that without much questioning had let the front be held by its auxiliary force, the Civil Defence. He also told a story of a local misfit who seized the opportunity to become the bloody ruler of Corinto during the dark years of the civil war.

The stories I heard in Corinto resembled stories from the Second World War I had grown up with in my own country, Norway. A war with reasonably fixed battle lines (unlike the ‘dirty wars’ in South Amerika, that otherwise provided the template for understanding violent conflict in Latin America at the time), and one in which the most sinister details included stories of locally grown torturers and madness. As a local boy, growing up in the aftermath—albeit at a distance of 25 years—for me, then, in the 1970s, the issue had been how to make sense of such atrocities in an otherwise reasonably understandable war. Now I was again confronted with trying to understand inhumanity. Receiving first-hand narratives in the field was something quite different from studying social conflict and political confrontation in books and academic journals.

I left Corinto that day with a sense of satisfaction, no doubt stemming from the cathartic feeling the taking of testimonies usually produced in both speaker and listener.[2] However, as the events in Corinto and many other places were analysed and put together in an overall report about the war, I grew uneasy about what we were doing to the original story and the hopes of those who volunteered to tell their stories. Twenty-five years later, I am still unsure about the real truth contained in the stories we collected, and not least, the wider impact of the report we put together from the testimonies.

This paper is an attempt to deal with this discomfort and turn it into something constructive. The ambition is to reflect upon the human experience of ‘closing the books’[3] and starting afresh to complement the more specific lessons about truth commissions.[4] I will do this by way of comparing what I learnt in El Salvador in 1992 to what I have later learnt about truth commissions; that is, how such truth-seeking undertakings have come to form a standard instrument in transitional justice (TJ) and how the jury is still out as regards the impact of the work of these commissions. Following a note on methodology and definitions in section 2 below, section 3 provides an outline of the Salvadoran civil war (ca 1979-1992) and problematizes how its story typically tends to be told, i.e., as a conflict between a right-wing dictatorial government and a left-wing popular rebellion. I argue that this standard story is a narrative frame that perhaps occludes more than it reveals for the present purpose of finding a constructive (both healing/restoring and future-oriented) truth. Then (section 4) I give a presentation of the mandate and the work of the commission, first situating its message in a framework of possible ways of starting afresh, and second (section 5), as an early example of what by now amounts to a standard UN mechanism with its own Special Rapporteur.[5] In the remaining sections 6 and 7, I examine my own work in the El Salvador truth commission and discuss its findings in the light of what I learnt from the testimonies I received when working for it back in 1992.

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[1] Document on file with the author. Initials replace original full names.

[2] Whether there really exists such a ‘cathartic release’ with healing capabilities is a topic of debate among psychologists as well as anthropologists. For the present purposes, it must suffice to say that this feeling is what I remember, and moreover by way of references to this more or less Freudian grammar of emotions, I was able to share my experiences with my fellow consultants as well as many Salvadorans war victims.

[3] Which also is the title of a standard reference book about transitional justice and the role of post-war trials and truth commissions by Jon Elster (Elster 2004).

[4] See, for instance, Skaar et al (forthcoming).

[5] For a presentation of the work of the Special Rapporteur in question, see . For a general introduction to the mechanism as such, see Both accessed 10.05.18.